This year's advice for journalism students

Students will be arriving (or returning) to journalism schools over the next month, providing me with a convenient excuse to offer students some beginning-of-the-year advice.

1. Don’t believe that journalism school will help you prepare for your career. Why? Because your journalism career’s already started. The moment you first posted a comment, photo or status update to the Web, you began your work as a journalist.

Doesn’t that make just about everyone on the Internet a journalist, you might ask? Well, yes. Even if most folks never post anything newsworthy or of interest to anyone outside their immediate circle of family and friends, everyone who posts online has the potential do create journalism, should they happen to be in the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) place or hear the right thing at the right time and post it. Immediate access to a global publishing medium allows any source to become a breaking news reporter, if only for just a moment.

You’re going to journalism school to help you improve the journalism career you’ve already begun, not to launch it.

2. Audience equals power for journalism job-seekers. This might be the most important lesson you learn in your journalism education, but most instructors aren’t prepared to teach it to you. They began their careers under a different model, when reporters earned their first gigs based upon the work they did in the classroom, on the student newspaper (or radio/TV station) and, perhaps, during an internship.

They’ll steer you toward those same options today, and there’s much to learn there, still. But place yourself in the position of an editor, having to hire a recent graduate for his or her newsroom. Do you take the one with the great clips and enthusiastic recommendations? Or the one with the great clips, enthusiastic recommendations, and the 5,000 daily unique visitors to her video blog?

Given that traffic becomes your traffic one you hire her, you take the second student. Every single time. So be that second student. Start building your audience now.

3. Your career is only as strong as your network. A generation ago, this meant building relationships with your instructors, and then finding the right internship, where you’d start building your professional network.

Today, your network functions mostly online, where you need to connect with colleagues as well as with the readers who’ll do the most work in spreading your reporting via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, YouTube or whatever social network comes along.

Build your network within the journalism field by following smart journalists on Twitter and establishing LinkedIn connections with the instructors you admire, as well as the reporters and editors you meet on the job. Build your network outside the field by establishing a personal, professional website (ideally, Create a Facebook fan page that site. Start a Twitter feed. Build an opt-in e-mail list of newsletter subscribers.

Read OJR and other journalism websites, and talk with instructors about the best ways to use social media and online networking, responsibly, to draw attention to your work and to build your personal “brand” as a journalist.

4. Pursue your passion, and develop expertise within it. The most rewarding way to draw attention to your work is, of course, to have something of value to say. Don’t expect to work as a general assignment reporter. Build your audience, and your reputation, by becoming an expert in a field that stirs your passion.

You’ll need to have passion for this field, since you’ll have to devote an immense amount of time to learning about it an covering it to distinguish your work from the others who’ll be writing and reporting on the same topic. Take advantage of your time at school by taking a second major in the topic you most want to cover as a journalist. (Some schools are requiring this now.) Build your network within that field as you build your network within journalism.

5. Conduct yourself as a journalist, at all times. Anytime you post online, you publish. Anything you say or do that might be posted by someone else reflects upon that brand that you’ll be working so hard to build. Don’t undercut your hard work with moments of Facebook foolishness.

Nor should you stop reporting when you surf for fun online. Stories can emerge from anywhere. Soak in all the information you touch, and when you read, watch or listen think always “Would others find this interesting?” That’s how you find the material you’ll need to fill your blog, Twitter feed or whatever else you publish online.

Good luck, best wishes and never wait for someone to hire you before starting to work.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at